Reviewed: Maggie & Me by Damian Barr

Iron age.

Maggie & Me
Damian Barr
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

Though you might not think so, given the specialised nature of the genre, the British “high-concept” 1970s or 1980s coming-of age memoir is a crowded field. It can’t be easy to elbow your way to the front with a new conceit. Most of the good ones are already gone – football (Nick Hornby), camping (Emma Kennedy), food (Nigel Slater), music (everyone) – and it can’t be long before the “growing up a vegetarian skinhead on Sark during the three-day week” memoir or some such tome hoves into view. Damian Barr, the author of this one, is even running a pricey course in how to write them, so we have a right to expect much. What he has given us manages to deliver and short-change simultaneously.

Barr is perhaps best known for his Shoreditch House Literary Salons, in which you can sip a Gibson Martini while listening to the likes of Diana Athill, Maggie O’Farrell and Joanne Harris, all of whom have loyally provided handsome cover recommendations here. Barr has not always moved in such chichi circles, as Maggie & Me bracingly makes clear. While she was at war in the South Atlantic or battling the unions, he – gay, asthmatic, geeky – was dealing with all manner of bullies and tribulations on a rundown Scottish council housing scheme, most notably in the shape of his mum’s implausibly monstrous boyfriend, Logan.

Thus far, this is fairly standard for what is known in the trade as a “misery memoir”. But, perhaps because he was aware of this, what Barr seeks to do – when he remembers – is to plot the course of his turbulent, working- class adolescence against the imperious, battleship-like progress of Maggie through her years of influence. John O’Farrell has done this kind of thing with Labour politics as a backdrop but no one, to my knowledge, has done what Barr has done –or if they have, they haven’t done it with such sensational timing. My copy of Maggie & Me arrived about an hour before the titular heroine bowed out for the last time. I’m not suggesting that anyone connected with the book would “rejoice at that good news” but it will probably not do sales any harm – however, it could mean that some might (wrongly) see it as a speedy cash-in.

Though we do get the obligatory set dressing of pop groups and TV shows – there is a coy, lengthy riff on Hart to Hart – and though the period detail is ladled on like Ski yoghurt, unlike most volumes of this kind, Maggie & Me is short on jokes and long on raw, pungent atmosphere. Barr has a keen eye for wincingly evocative detail: the wooden tongs used to fish items out of the drum of the tumble dryer; the new, clear-plastic asthma inhaler that is the “latest in weedy boy technology”. On the wall of his childhood home hangs a free calendar given away by the local Chinese takeaway. All of this rings true and is expressed with a kind of grim lyricism.

Elsewhere, the touch is less sure and sometimes there’s an unconvincing neatness to some of the episodes. The vivid recollection of a teacher’s classroom speech about the ending of free school milk seems too good to be true. Though his mother’s description of his dad’s brassy new amour as a “pound shop Dolly Parton” is lovely, there were no pound shops in the mid-1980s. Would a parent really use Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver as a touchstone reference in conversation with primary-school-age kids? There are many examples of this false-memory syndrome and whether they’re the products of forgetfulness or fabrication, they harden the heart against the book.

Stylistically, Barr is a capable writer, if prone to lapses. Writing of the iconic Caledonian snack the Tunnocks Teacake, he mentions two different women using their nails to “crack the chocolate dome” without harming the mallow beneath twice in the space of a few chapters, which suggests either that he’s inordinately pleased with this image or that the book could have done with a keener edit. The ghastliness is somewhat unrelenting, as is the casual violence. Usually. Expressed. In. Staccato. Sentences. Like. This. Ultimately, what’s most deflating about the book is the transparent fraudulence of the whole Maggie angle. Mrs T is not so much shoehorned in as cheaply welded on in the form of a brief quotation at the beginning of each chapter and a hasty, muddled eulogy at the end. In Barr’s drama, Maggie doesn’t even have a bit part. She’s a voice-off. Very, very far off.

Barr writes of Thatcher: “I love her and hate her in equal measure.” Maggie & Me doesn’t plunge you into the grip of emotions quite so strong – but it may leave you just as conflicted.

Stuart Maconie presents “Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone” on BBC Radio 6 Music. His most recent book is “Hope and Glory: a People’s History of Modern Britain” (Ebury Press, £7.99)

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge